“I Prophesy he will Hit your Curves”

21 Apr

In February of 1905 it was announced that the baseball team from Waseda University in Tokyo, “champions of Japan,” were coming to America.  The San Francisco Call said:

“The fact that there is a great war going on in their country (The Russo-Japanese War) does not prevent the Japanese from the enjoyment of their sports.  (Athletic) Manager (R.W.) Barrett of Stanford concluded arrangements today with the baseball team of Waseda University for a series of international games.”

The trip to the states was organized by a Japanese professor named Isso Abe and an American professor named Fred Merrifield.  The two were an unlikely pair brought together by their love for the game, which had been introduced to Japan 35 years earlier. Abe, a Unitarian minister and professor of economics, is regarded as the father of socialism in Japan; he established the nation’s first socialist political party in 1901, the same year he helped form the baseball team at Waseda. “The Unitarian Register” said “Dr. Abe believes in baseball, not only as a healthy and inspiring sport, but also as means of promoting international goodwill.” Merrifield was a recent graduate of the University of Chicago, where he was also captain of the baseball team. He was a religious scholar who was in Japan learning the language and working on behalf of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society.

The Waseda University team upon their arrival in San Francisco

The Waseda University team upon their arrival in San Francisco

While the team was traveling to the United States, The Chicago Daily News published a letter from Merrifield describing the growing popularity of the game in Japan, “The universities, colleges, middle schools and even those of lower grade,” all had teams; he also described the differences he saw in the Japanese game:

“The Japanese students ordinarily wear white uniforms in their play, with blue socks or ‘tabi’ for footwear…The native baseballs are a trifle smaller than our own and do not keep their shape and hardness as well.  The American balls, bats etc… are not strangers, however, to these children of progress.  All this apparatus may not be understood at once, but it is here and is used until it is mastered. “It sometimes sounds queer to hear the umpire call, ‘Strike-ball!’ instead of ‘Strike!’ simply, But the wonder is that they use English terms on the diamond.  In fact, all the common words of the game are spoken in English, but woe betide the man who tries to make out the Japanese words of coaching.  While you’re thinking what it all means the man is under you at second.

“The other day I was coaching a new pitcher on ‘drops,’ ‘placing’ etc…, and was acting as batter to help his eye.  At a suitable stage in the process I turned to instruct the catcher on some point or other.  The point was understood, and we were about to resume our positions, when zip came the ball past my ear and caught the unfortunate catcher squarely on the cheekbone.  Two more points are illustrated:  The catcher scarcely moved a muscle, and never a sound came from his lips.  He quietly walked away to bathe his swollen face.  That is a bit of Japanese stoicism, for we all know how a straight ball stings.  Again, the pitcher had been working so hard to master that new finger movement and ‘locate’ his batter that he all but did the opposite to fellow player.  That is Japanese persistence and eagerness.  Just a bit of it.”

Merrifield said Japanese players had another quality he admired:

“They may not be good hitters yet and may not know much about curves, but they listen to the umpire and know how to accept decisions without a question…I have seen ball after ball skim the batter’s eyes, and ‘Strike!’ from the umpire would not affect his temperament in the least. “The pitcher might put several telling drops over the outer corner, and if the slow eyed umpire said ‘Ball!’ ball it remained without a murmur, although one acquainted with the situation knew of the disappointment suppressed because the game was in the balance.”

Merrifield had just watched his friend set sail for the United States with the first team of Japanese players, a team he helped mold, to play on American soil, and was optimistic about the future of the game in Japan:

“Give the Japanese player a little more training in the fine points of the game, and I prophesy he will hit your curves, slide the field with the best and make his share of the fun.  And then, after bowing politely to the umpire, he will go home and teach his younger brother to do still better at the great game of baseball.”

The team arrived in San Francisco on April 20.  The reception by the West Coast press was positive, but stories of the team’s tour were replete with the decidedly insensitive language of the day; for example, the team was repeatedly referred to as “the brown ball tossers.”  The San Francisco Call said:

“(T)he brightest stars from the green diamond of the Mikado tripped merrily down the gangplank of the Manchuria when she docked yesterday…These brawny young athletes traveled those thousands of miles from their realm of far Nippon just for the pleasure of matching their skill against the best teams the American colleges can pit against them.  They are all titles young men and come here for the pleasure of lining out base hits and catching flies only.  They will also study the methods in vogue here and pay special attention to the manner in which the great national pastime is played.”

The day after their arrival, the Waseda team took the field in Palo Alto for their first practice, The San Francisco Chronicle said:

“The practice was attended by a large number of curious undergraduates, who were anxious to size up the work of the team from the Orient…The team appeared in neat suits, cut after the regulation styles, light brown in color, with the word ‘Waseda’ worked across the breast of the shirt.  Pitcher (Atsushi) Kono exercised a few moments…and then the entire squad trotted out upon the diamond and lined up for a bit of fielding practice.  The men worked hard, accepting all chances, and their work was as good as has been seen on the Stanford diamond this season. “During practice Captain (Shin) Hashido of the Waseda aggregation met several members of the varsity team.  As the captain could not speak English and none of the local men were conversant with Japanese, the conversation was limited to a warm handshake and a welcoming smile.”

Atsushi Kono

Atsushi Kono

The Waseda and Stanford teams played their first game on April 29 in front of a crowd of about 200—including “Five hundred Japanese rooters, with Waseda banners” who came from San Francisco. Kono pitched for Waseda, as he would in all 26 of the team’s games during the tour, and gave up 11 hits in the 9 to 1 loss.  The Chronicle said:

“(T)hough (Kono) allowed eleven safe swats to be made, he kept them well scattered, and were it not for the wildness of his teammates the score would have been much smaller.  Kono besides pitching good ball, was in the game every minute, and kept his head better than the rest of the nine.  It was a hit from his bat that scored Captain Hashido, and save the team from a shutout.”

Shin Hashido

Shin Hashido

Four days later the two teams met again at San Francisco’s Recreation Park in front of a crowd of more than 2000, which The Chronicle said was “more than two-thirds Japanese.”  Stanford won again, this time 3 to 1.  The Call said:

“The representatives of the Mikado are weakest at the bat, being unable to connect with the curve ball which has reached such a high state of development in this country.”

The Chronicle said there were still some aspects of the rules which were lost in translation:

“Some funny mistakes, owing to a misapprehension of the rules, were made by the Japanese here; for instance, they construed the fly-ball rule to mean that in no case could a runner leave a base while a fly was in the air, and this error cost them a run in their last game with Stanford…appeal was made to the English-speaking professor, who gave their version of the rule.  They know better now.”

The team continued to play games on the West Coast through June, meeting military and semi-pro teams, college clubs and even one high school opponent (they defeated Los Angeles High 5 to 3).  The assessment of the Waseda club’s abilities throughout the trip, were summed up by a headline in The Call after the Japanese team was shut out 5 to 0 by the University of California, Berkeley:

“Japs field like a Bunch of the Big Leaguers but Are Unable to Hit.”

1905 Waseda University team

1905 Waseda University team

Over the course of the 26 games played on American soil, Waseda University won seven.  They arrived back in Japan on July 6. The tour opened the door for regular international competition between Japanese and American teams until World War I, either in their respective countries or in Hawaii.

While Abe became more involved in Japanese politics (he served as a member of the National Diet from 1928-1940), and also served as Waseda’s Dean, he remained an ardent supporter of baseball, and returned to the states with several subsequent teams from the University.

Kono returned to Japan and introduced the country to the pitcher’s wind up and a change-up, which he picked up on the tour.  In 1936 he organized the Nagoya club in Japan’s first professional league—his team won the first professional game played in Japan on April 29 of that year.

Hashido eventually became a baseball writer and author in Japan, he and Kono are both members of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.

Merrifield continued his work with the American Baptist Missionary union in Japan and in Michigan; he later returned the University of Chicago as a professor of New Testament History and eventually became the baseball coach (1921).  In April of 1920 he took the University of Chicago team on a tour of Japan, the U of C Maroons were 8-4 with two ties on the trip–including a 4-2-1 mark against Waseda.

The 1920 University of Chicago Baseball team in Japan, Isso Abe is at the front, introducing the team at the welcome celebration.

The 1920 University of Chicago Baseball team in Japan, Isso Abe is at the front, introducing the team at the welcome celebration.

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